In these times of transition it is difficult to label anything and when we do the very same label flies off at the speed of the change in which the element is enveloped. It is well known that the largest vacation rental agency (Airbnb) does not own a single apartment, the largest content generator (Facebook) does not produce a single piece of content, and the largest retailer (Amazon) doesn’t make anything. The digital era (how ancient the term sounds) has changed the foundations of many industries. And television is no exception.
Below, I’ll reflect on how new consumption and production habits have affected content. Netflix spearheaded this new logic and other platforms like Amazon and HBO followed suit (the latter to a lesser extent as it is not a native digital company).
A bit of history: the three golden ages of American television
To talk about streaming content, one must first discuss broadcast content and its evolution.
Between the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1960s, the first Golden Age of Television took place in the United States, as described by Max Wilk in 1999 in his book The Golden Age of Television. In this period the United States went from leading the Allies in World War II to facing off with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A number of theatrical adaptations were broadcast, from Shakespeare to Ibsen. In addition to classic playwrights, new writers wrote original scripts for television. Plays aimed at extolling patriotic values could be found, although there were also dark narratives that showed the bitter side of the American dream. All programs were sponsored by private companies, which used commercials to associate their name with the television programs.
The show Hill Street Blues premiered in 1981, and with it premiered “a way of making television more sophisticated and more artistic than usual,” according to Walter Thompson. Its aesthetics and the moral complexity of the plot made the series the launching point for quality TV or the Second Golden Age of American Television. “Since the 1980s, with the appearance of series like Dallas and Hill Street Blues, TV shows have been built on a multidimensional structure, which includes a main story arc and secondary plot lines being developed at the same time throughout the series. This is a revolution in the way that series are created. In fact, before this structural change, TV shows were episodic, meaning that each episode had an ending.”(Bourdaa, 2011: 35).
If the serial nature of complex plot lines marked the start of quality TV in the 1980s, at the beginning of the 21st century, most American shows followed the standards for this kind of television. Thus, the Second Golden Age of American television gave way to the Third Golden Age almost seamlessly. This new stage is characterized by all the above-mentioned requirements of quality TV and adds audience participation thanks to the convergence of new communications technologies, especially the Internet. Lost was the first fan phenomenon to burst onto the online scene, with forums and discussion sites being created by the show’s followers. Lostpedia is a wiki where viewers input all the content from the series in an attempt to respond to the multiple questions posed by the series. The space is said to have been so extensive that even the show’s screenwriters consulted it when they had doubts about plot lines or characters.
Along came Netflix
While commercial television was evolving, a movie rental service called Netflix began operating in 1997 in order to compete with the service offered by traditional video rental shops. Tired of having to pay late fees on their DVD rentals and in search of a new digital business model, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph created an online catalog where the user received the DVD they had selected on the website at home through the mail. Once users had watched the movie, they returned it without having to pay postage. The service was a success; in 2007 Netflix delivered its billionth DVD and had over 10 million subscribers in the United States.
In September 2010 it began to offer streaming services in Canada. Instead of receiving physical DVDs, users could watch content online. This revolution culminated one year later with the platform’s first original production, the political thriller House of Cards, produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey.
Before the arrival of Netflix in Spain, the traditional channels were already offering almost all their content online, although the quality of the streaming, be it due to the connection or the technology, made the experience less than satisfactory. Many directors of national channels saw uploading content to the Internet as a necessary evil, something that they had to do because the competition was doing it. They didn’t see the business side of it.
In 2006, a partnership between the leading distributors in Spain launched the portal Filmin and in 2010 Spaniard Jacinto Roca founded Wuaki, which became Raukten TV in 2017. In 2012, the Swedish VOD platform Voddler began operating in Spain and closed shortly thereafter due to lack of subscribers. Neither the technology nor the audience was ready. With the arrival of Netflix in 2015, however, the VOD platform boom began in Spain. Improved Internet connections and the evolution of steaming systems entailed a high number of content providers.
Moving toward the first golden age of streaming content
Eight years after the start of Netflix original productions, the content can now be analyzed and patterns can be found leading one to the conclusion that we are living in a new golden age of content, no longer television, although the narrative characteristics are very similar. Consider:
- Binge watching. Binge watching content is one of the first consequences of having access to it around the clock. If Netflix had been around in the 1980s, the question of who killed JR on Dallas would not have become a topic of conversation for months on end. If anything, we would have been avoiding spoilers. Curiously, the narrative technique of the cliffhanger is still being used. It serves the same purpose: stop the plot at a high point so that the viewer wants to watch the next episode. The difference is that VOD cliffhangers must elicit a faster response from the viewer, while in traditional television they need to generate hype for a week.
- Miniseries and procedurals. Television shows can be classified, among other characteristics, as serial or episodic. The former have a plot that continues throughout all seasons of the show (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad) and the latter have plots that are open and closed in the same episode (CSI, Family Guy). The number of seasons of serial shows can vary, from one of Brave Father John to 25 and counting of The Simpsons.
It is notable that serials with a single season are especially present in the case of Netflix. Series like Maniac, American Crime Story, and Stranger Things have stories that last an average of 10 episodes. Anthology episodic shows like Black Mirror and Easy, which present new characters and universes each episode, are also notable.
- Comedy specials. Traditional television has brought comedy to viewers in the form of series, sketch comedy shows, and game shows. Rarely has stand-up comedy been seen on television. The Spanish program El club de la comedia, Paramount Comedy specials, and the newly-available Comedy Central have traditionally been the only spaces in Spain for TV stand-up, a genre that enjoys greater prestige in the United States.
Netflix opened a window to the world with the production of specials, mostly in the United States, that reach the world and are breathing new life into stand-up. Newcomers like John Mulaney, Ali Wong, and Kevin Hart and classics like Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Ray Romano, Ellen Degeneres, and Jerry Seinfeld are all part of a growing catalog of original productions. But these specials are not only produced in the United States. In Spain the company produced a Joaquín Reyes special Una y no más and the series Comedians of the World shows comedy specials from comedians from 13 different countries, from Germany to India and Brazil.
- Documentaries. One genre underrated by traditional television that Netflix has promoted is documentary. Its first production was Making a Murderer, a docuseries on the case of Steven Avery, a young Wisconsin man who was sentenced to life in prison for murder. The series follows the trial and the appeals that were lodged over the years in what appears to be a false accusation. The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann and The Ted Bundy Tapes are two other documentary series that were quite successful. Nature series such as Our Planet, shows on gastronomy such as Chef’s Table, historical shows such as Roman Empire, musicals like Keith Richards: Under the Influence, and social protest shows such as Dirty Money present non-fiction offerings that can satisfy the demands of any audience.
- Film. Since the dawn of the Internet, the world of film has been enveloped in a whirlwind in which the debate on copyright, content accessibility, and the concept of cinema itself have been called into question. With the arrival of legal VOD systems, the issue of piracy has been reduced, but a polemic on the concept of film itself arose. We used to very clearly understand the difference between a film and a TV movie. Production and distribution made it quite clear. The difference in quality was unquestionable. Until Netflix arrived on the scene.
The biggest showdown occurred between the platform and the Cannes film festival. Directors as well-known as Amoldóvar and Spielberg protested in 2017 as Netflix submitted two films, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, to compete that had not premiered at a commercial movie theater. The festival then decided to apply the regulation that in order to compete in the official category. Netflix responded by removing all its productions from the festival. This is an issue that has not yet been closed, but is fated to be resolved in favor of the streaming platform. Is cinema a means of distributing art or an art itself, a way of telling stories? Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón and produced by Netflix, Roma, showed that it is the latter and that is precisely how festivals and academies around the world have recognized it. It won a plethora of awards including three Oscars, four Baftas, a Golden Lion, a Golden Globe, and many more.
- Multicultural and transnational. Netflix is realizing the dream of positive globalization, providing access to content anywhere in the world. This is true for Netflix original productions, but not for the other content as there are territorial restrictions regarding third-party rights. The platform is present in 190 countries and has original productions in nine languages (English, Spanish, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Norwegian, Italian, Turkish, and French). Audiences have never before had access to such as a large and varied catalog. Borders are blurred and with a single click we can go from watching a show set in New York to Japanese anime or Australian stand-up.
This global aspect is also seen in some Netflix original productions such as Narcos. The first two seasons of the series tell the birth, rise, and decline of the empire of Pablo Escobar, the most famous drug trafficker at the end of the 20th century. The following seasons continue to follow drug-related stories in South America, after the Escobar era. Although the production is from the US, the language spoken could be considered Spanglish, a mix of Spanish and English spoken in the Americas. When the Colombians speak, they speak Spanish; and when the Americans speak they speak English. When they speak to one another, a curious mix is spoken. All of this occurs naturally for a globalized audience that is used to traveling and mingling with other cultures.
- Algorithm. Information is power and data is money in the 21st century. One of the great advantages of streaming services is that data can be directly measured. It can be segmented and analyzed from different perspectives. We have gone from the quantitative survey of the people meter to processing data from a digital environment. Analyzing the behavior of millions of Netflix users, executives can make production decisions with greater certainty that ever before. That is what they did with their first original production, House of Cards. They determined that the most-watched director was David Fincher; most-watched actor, Kevin Spacey; and the most-watched genre, the political thriller. Combining these components, they adapted the English miniseries House of Lies and created a global success, leading a show that had never been broadcast on television to receive two Emmy Awards. This is a new way of green-lighting projects, where executive instinct is replaced by data precision. They could be called data-driven executives.
These data are probably the reason that the platform has become the place that gives second changes to shows that were canceled on traditional channels. Starting with the cult comedy Arrested Development, moving on to Black Mirror and Money Heist, the American platform has revamped many of productions.
- Interactiveness. One of the characteristics of the Third Golden Age of American television is easily integrated into Netflix content. Still in the experimental phase, choose your own adventure content is becoming available on the platform. This content shows users different options and they choose which path to take. The most well known is the Black Mirror film Bandersnatch, but they first premiered the adaptation of the video game Minecraft as an interactive children’s show. This year, interactiveness reached the docu-reality format with You vs. Wild, where users make survival decisions for the host. Should he ford the river with the crocodiles or swing over? The medium-length Puss in Boots and the animated Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout currently round out the catalog of interactive content.
Some of the points listed above will probably be changed, eliminated, or expanded over time. As I said at the start of this article, we are living in changing times; what is said today might be modified tomorrow. What is certain is that Netflix entails a change to the production and consumption of audiovisual content. We will all be watching its evolution.